Are Safer Workplaces More Dangerous?

by Dave Collins on May 10, 2013

in Risk Aversion,Zero Harm

Are Safer Workplaces More Dangerous?

imageOne of our Readers “Wynand” recently made a brilliant comment On Rob Long’s article, Safety Justifies Anything and Everything and I thought it was worth highlighting (see below).

So, are workplaces that are perceived as “safe”, either because there are no obvious hazards or there has never been a serious accident or there is a “Zero Harm” poster on the wall, really that safe???

  • Do we become complacent?
  • Is there too much reliance engineering and procedural controls?
  • Do we have a false sense of security?
  • Has paperwork diminished our risk awareness and taken away our ability to think about hazards that are not on the checklist or SWMS?
  • Are we so sick of all the spin and hype around programs like Zero Harm that we tune out to important stuff we are being told or put a spin of our own on it?

Wynand’s Comment:

Referring to the posts of Ned and Riskex: At a previous job I had, we had a small experimental coke oven. When emptying the oven, ca 280 kg of coke, ca 1000°C, was pushed into a water cooled basket in a hole in the floor – no barriers were possible due to the operation. Nobody ever got hurt there – some injuries were sustained lighting the flare on the stack, cuts with glassware, strain injuries from handling heavy items etc. This then made me conclude that visibly dangerous situations are often safer because the risk is visible and triggers caution. It is the seemingly safe situations that are the ones that sometimes cause big accidents. If you look at many process accidents, you will find that the original judgement errors that caused the accidents were not obvious. (There are some obvious ones that cause severe injuries, like cutting open a drum that can contain flammable fumes. However, how many people would expect that filling a distillation tower too fast can destroy a plant?) I found that teaching my 3 year old son how to “feel” if a surface is hot was much more effective than constantly warning him “this is hot”. We need to move more towards helping people assess the real risks and understand the processes, rather than covering them in paper, such as excessive procedures.

I like to refer to a paper Peter Sandman published in 2001 – “Motivated inattention and safety management”. If you tell people stuff they do not believe (lie Zero Harm, or “Safety is our no 1 priority”, they will subconsciously get the message “You need to separate the facts from the bull for yourself”, and you loose total control over what they will believe and what not. The real message can then easily be discarded, and (I believe) the more “bull” they experience, the more messages they will discard. Furthermore, the people you really want (critical and innovative thinkers) will become your worst enemies, since they will call you out (at least in the corridors), and instead of becoming your allies, they become your opponents. A lot of good safety (dare I say culture?) stands and falls on the honesty and openness in messages from management.

  • Wynand

    Thanks for the compliments. It is always nice to know someone appreciated a comment. And to Peter Sandman, it is clear that real truths will still be true years down the line. Even published in 2001, your article is still relevant today, and I like using it to start a debate. Challenging managers with the point that workers will select what they believe, and that they believe some rules are believed to be ignored still raises eyebrows, but gets the discussion going.

  • I appreciated Wynand’s comment. Those who want to read the article he referenced on “Motivated Inattention and Safety Management” can find it at

    Two other articles of mine that I think are relevant to Wynand’s points:

    1. Selling Safety: Business Case or Values Case —

    2. Managing Risk Familiarity —

    –Peter Sandman

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